All posts by ellispritchard

Lots of Lettuce

May has turned chilly and wet, so today I’ve been looking for excuses not to do all the gardening I need to do, hence this article!

One of the things that does love cool weather is lettuce: it won’t even germinate above 21°C (70F), so it’s best to start it off whilst it’s still cool.

When I first started gardening, I tried growing lettuce in the ground, in traditional neat rows like I saw in books. It was a bit of a disaster: all the green leaves (Cos) got eaten by slugs, whilst the slugs avoided the red leaves (Batavia), but then so did we, since they were really quite bitter!

Subsequently, I’ve discovered the secret to growing enough lettuce to keep you in interesting leaves all year is to plant a mix of varieties in containers.

Containers

Planting in containers means you can put them out of the reach of slugs, perhaps applying a bit of copper tape to the sides, or placing on a window-sill, door-step, or just paying them more attention and picking off slugs and snails at night, to avoid too much damage. You can also move containers around the garden with the season, seeking the shade during hot periods, and you can also efficiently water and harvest them. If you haven’t got much outside space, then of course, containers are your go-to solution.

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Mixed leaves

For your container, you want something that’s going to be big enough to supply you with enough leaves to make it worth while, and to not dry out too easily: the sort of ‘live lettuce’ trays you buy in a supermarket is about a tenth of the surface area and a quarter of the depth you want! I usually grow in a trough about 30cm wide and deep, and 60cm long.

You can, of course, grow in containers less deep, such as seed trays or re-used trays from packaging, but be aware that you will need to water much more often, as salad leaves soon go to seed and stop growing nice leaves if they are stressed by drying out. Equally, ensure that your container has sufficient drain-holes in the bottom, since otherwise the roots will rot if the British summer delivers its normal quantity of rain, or you accidentally over-water.

Varieties

Sowing a mix of varieties, as a ‘cut and come again’ crop means that you never get bored of a single variety, and gives a chance to try out some interesting leaves, without ending up with a crop nobody wants to eat. Retailers sell traditional ready-mixed ‘salad bowl’ leaves, and themed mixes such as Italian (usually with Salad Rocket) or Oriental (usually with Pak Choi and Mizuna), or you can buy a couple of varieties you know you like, and mix them yourself.

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Mizuna dominating an ‘Oriental’ mix

Be aware that some varieties are more vigorous than others, and this will affect the productivity of the less vigorous varieties: for instance, I’ve found it’s best to grow Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. nipposinica) on it’s own, since it will out-compete anything else (it also crops longer than anything else, and resists slugs, though is a bit too coarse on its own).

Sowing

For sowing, choose a good, reasonably fine compost (I prefer a peat-free composts), fill your container to about an inch off the top, and gently firm the surface before watering with a fine spray.

Scatter your seeds reasonably densely: you are looking for something like two or three seeds per square inch; then cover with just enough compost that you can’t see any seeds – don’t bury them too deep.

For best germination, put the container outside, in a shaded spot, and make sure it never dries out, without making it soggy. You should see germination in about a week.

Harvesting

Once the seedlings have grown several leaves each, and are starting to jostle for space, you can start harvesting. To maximise your crop, try not to damage the centre ‘growing tip’ of the plant – the bit where the baby leaves grow from, as the plant will stop growing without it. Cut individual leaves, or carefully trim a block with scissors if you’re in a hurry. Aim to thin-out the leaves and allow more to grow in their place.

With careful harvesting, and regular watering, you should be able to have fresh leaves for up to three weeks. Once the plants start getting weak, or if they start flowering, it’s time to move on: for a continual supply, try sowing another container about three weeks after the first.

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Now that’s what I call a salad!

If the plants do start flowering, remember that you can eat the buds, flowers, or indeed the whole plant, so make the most of it!

Season

You should be able to sow lettuce all through Spring and into Summer, and then again once mid-summer has passed. Lettuce is one of the earliest, and the latest, crops you can grow, and you can even over-winter some the oriental ones in a cold-frame, unheated green house or conservatory.

Swap Shop

We had a very successful day at the Craft Market on Saturday, where we held our annual Seedling Swap.

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A boot full of plants for the swap!

Starting with plants grown by our committee members, many from seed obtained at February’s Seed Swap, our stock soon rose and fell as ALFI supporters and friends arrived with new donations, and took away other people’s excess seedlings. Members of the public also browsed and took plants in exchange for a donation: just the way things are supposed to work.

 

Talk of the Town

What’s particularly nice about these events is the opportunity it gives to chat with fellow gardeners, whether hardened veterans or curious starters.

This year it was notable that many people were complaining about the generally cool Spring and the late frosts, with parts of Alton experiencing a degree of frost in the first week of May. Not unheard of perhaps, but what’s quite ironic, of course, is the complete lack of any frost this winter until well into the New Year, resulting in daffodils blooming at Christmas!

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Set up and swapping

As a result of the cool weather, there was a complete lack of French beans, and notably fewer other less-hardy plants such cucumbers & courgettes. If it hadn’t been for a very generous donation of Runner beans early in the day, we’d have been completely bean-less! Tomatoes were in plentiful supply though, with several varieties on offer, since only a fool would ever try to germinate them in outside this time of year (Er, I did, which is why mine are still tiny!).

 

Stock take

What we lacked in legumes, we made up for in other species: we had strawberries, rhubarb, chard, celery, artichokes, peas, beetroot, chillies & peppers, and a wide variety of herbs; plus a number of companion plants, flowers, and plants for wild gardens, to keep the wild-life happy!

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Thanks for everyone who contributed, it was lovely to chat to you; good luck growing your fresh acquisitions! See you at the AGM*?

*Our AGM is on July 11th, meeting at 19:00 to admire the Vicarage Gardens, then from 19:30 at the back room in the Railway Arms.

Pear and mincemeat crumble cake

 

Use up any mincemeat you have over from Christmas for this tasty cake.

Ingredients

4 pears
3 tbsp. golden caster sugar
1 tsp. mixed spice
250g softened butter
250g golden caster sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
5 large eggs
200g self raising flour
100g ground almonds
7 tbsp. plain flour
6 tbsp. mincemeat

Method

Peel and core the pears. Cut into thumb-size pieces.

Put the pears, 2 tbsp. of caster sugar and 2 tbsp. of water in a saucepan and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes to tenderise.

Add the spice and leave to cool.

Heat the oven to 160C(140C fan)/Gas 3.

Grease and line the base and sides of a round, deep 20cm cake tin.

Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla and a little salt together.

Beat in the eggs and self raising flour. Then fold in the ground almonds.

Remove 85g of the batter into a small bowl and mix in the plain flour to make a crumbly looking mix.

Spoon half the cake batter into the cake tin. Top with half the pears and dot over half the mincemeat. Add the remaining batter, top with the rest of the pears and mincemeat and then the crumble mix. Sprinkle over the last tablespoon of sugar.

Bake for 1½ hours. Cover with foil after one hour.

Cool in the tin for ten minutes then cool on a rack.

ALFI Harvest Feast was delicious

We had our annual Harvest Feast at the Methodist Church Hall on Saturday 10 October during the morning and at lunchtime.  The hall was decorated with berries and autumn leaves and flowers and some impressive pumpkins grown by our members. We offered delicious homemade produce, including seed spelt biscuits, beetroot and chocolate cake, and apple cake with coffee or tea. There were a variety of homemade soups for lunch including spicy parsnip, butternut squash, and watercress soup with homemade bread, rolls or muffins.

There was a photographic display showing the plots and planters around town, including the latest Vicarage Plot in St Lawrence Vicarage front garden and the Sensory Garden at the Limes that ALFI volunteers work on.

We offered bags of eating applies and packets of autumn seeds and green manure.

Plenty of local people dropped in to look around and sit and have a chat over coffee or lunch. Donations were invited and profit from the event will be used for materials needed for the twelve sites around Alton that ALFI garden.

Chocolate and Beetroot Cake

We enjoyed this one at the 2015 Harvest Festival.

Ingredients

50 g cocoa powder
180g plain flour
1.25 teaspoons baking powder
250g castor sugar
300g fresh cooked beetroot (cook whole with skin on and then remove skin)
3 eggs
200 ml corn oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

Prepare a 7” cake tin – line the bottom with greaseproof paper and tie 2 layers of newspaper round the outside.

Sift cocoa, flour and baking powder together. Stir in the sugar and leave on one side.

Puree or liquidise the beetroot, put in a clean bowl and then stir in the eggs, corn oil and vanilla.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and stir in the beetroot mixture. Mix gently and then pour into the tin.

Bake at Gas Mark 4 / 160 degrees C for approx 40 minutes.

It will be done when a skewer comes out clean and surface is cracked. Dust with icing sugar. If you like, split it open and fill with a chocolate icing.

Chocolate icing – mix together 100 g icing sugar, 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder, 30 g margarine and 1.5 tablespoons of hot milk. Beat well until smooth. Use to ice a cake or fill the middle.

Spicy Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
Half a teaspoon ground cumin
Half a teaspoon ground cinnamon
Half a teaspoon ground ginger
Quarter teaspoon ground cloves
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1kg butternut squash
750 ml vegetable stock
1 tin chickpeas
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (or similar)
1 tbs lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Method

Peel and chop the onion & garlic.
Peel the butternut squash and cut into chunks.
Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onion and garlic
Cook gently for 2-3 minutes until beginning to soften, then add the spices, sugar and butternut squash
Cook for 5 minutes, stirring until fragrant.
Pour in the stock and bring to the boil.
Simmer gently until the squash is tender.
Add the chickpeas, Tabasco and lemon juice.
Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Puree the mixture in a food processor or with a handheld blender until smooth. Serve piping hot, with a sprinkling of cayenne if liked.

Baked Apples

Ingredients

100g  dried fruit of your choice – mixed tropical fruit is good
1tsp   ground cinnamon
4tbsp clear honey
50g    chopped hazelnuts – can be omitted
4        large cooking apples
Lemon juice

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6.
  2. Roughly chop the dried fruit and mix with the cinnamon, honey and hazelnuts. You can also add a little vanilla or rum at this point.
  3. Core the apples and score the skin around the middle. Place in a baking dish.
  4. Brush the hollows of the apple with lemon juice.
  5. Fill the centre of the apples with the fruit and nut mix.
  6. Bake for 30–40 minutes until golden and soft. Cove r with foil if filling starts to get too brown.